Napa County’s wildfire situation as described by fire officials on Thursday was a roller coaster ride of good news and bad news, of hopeful signs and of challenges.
The Atlas Fire stayed away from the eastern city limits of Napa as a predicted north wind proved weaker than expected. But fire officials said they were concerned about Berryessa Highlands, a rural community of 300 homes along Lake Berryessa some 14 miles away, demonstrating the breadth of the 44,000-acre blaze.
The combined Nuns/Norrbom Fire and the Partrick Fire shifted away from threatening the western city of Napa. But fire in the predawn hours menaced Sonoma County and the Loveall Valley area of Napa County and burned several homes. Shifting winds could move the main fire activity back into Napa County.
Calistoga, a ghost town after being evacuated Wednesday, survived the night. But it remained threatened by the Tubbs Fire burning to the north.
This mix of hope and caution was on display at a Thursday press conference at the Napa County Sheriff’s Office. County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Belia Ramos began the proceedings on an optimistic note.
“Today’s a different day. And it’s a good day for us. We are now hitting this fire on two fronts,” Ramos said.
But had fire crews turned a corner in their battle against fires in the mountains to the east and west of the Napa Valley floor?
“Too soon to say we’ve turned a corner,” Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said. “What I would say is we’re starting to make progress in the containment of the fire. Up until really last night and today, we were really just defending homes everywhere, limited resources on one section because we were trying to save homes over there.”
Now, as more crews come to Napa County, firefighters are able to start securing and extinguishing parts of the fire instead of working piecemeal, he said. Containment means taking care of every smoking stump and anything burning so that particular section of fire has little or no threat of spreading.
Still, challenges remained.
In the southern Mayacamas Mountains, the fire danger flip-flops between Napa and Sonoma counties, depending in wind direction. Late Wednesday and early Thursday morning, the fire danger once again moved to the Sonoma County side.
Biermann said homes were destroyed, though he didn’t know how many, perhaps 10. Fire moved through the Loveall Valley Loop area toward the town of Sonoma, prompting evacuation orders at about 9 p.m. Wednesday.
“The firefight over there got very intense,” Biermann said.
He talked about the head and the heel ends of the fire. The head is the area with the greatest fire activity. When the wind direction switches, the head and heel also switch.
By late Thursday, Biermann said fire activity was again picking up in the Dry Creek/Mount Veeder area. The goal was to keep the fire from crossing Dry Creek Road, because below that is the Veterans Home of California at Yountville and the town of Yountville.
“It’s very steep,” Beirmann said. “There are heavy fuels. Our crews are up there battling very hard right now.”
The roller coaster ride of news on Thursday included an ominous prediction for the weekend—north winds that can fan fires are to return. Biermann said they could be of significant strength.
“That causes us concern,” Biermann said. “We are doing all we can to put resources in the right locations.”
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said another 900 firefighters and 123 engines are headed this way from states as far away as Pennsylvania and even from Canada and Australia. The Department of Defense is looking at how it might help.
“This is pulling all the plugs. This is a priority firefighting area,” he said.
A Cal Fire report said 1,358 firefighters are working on the south Napa County fires – the Atlas, Nuns/Norrbom and Partrick—and 821 firefighters are working on the Tubbs fire.
Thompson also said that House of Representatives passed a $36.5 billion emergency relief bill to provide money for hurricanes and other disasters. The bill was increased by $1 billion at the last minute because of California wildfires.
The bill is to go to the Senate later this month.
“To the residents of Napa County, I would say you have heard that literally the world loves you and help is on the way,” Ramos said. “We’re going to get through this together and we are seeing good news and we will have better days for sure.”
Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning addressed the situation in his city. He wants no one to be there except for emergency crews trying to save the homes and businesses.
“If you are trying to visit Calistoga, you are not welcome,” Canning said. “That’s very hard for us to say, because we’ve been known since the 1800s to be a very hospitable community, but that’s not helpful at this point.”
By Thursday afternoon, Calistoga remained in danger. Biermann said the Tubbs Fire was burning on Mount St. Helena, which posed firefighting challenges.
“The Calistoga area still has the potential for that fire to grow and to go into areas that we don’t want it to be in,” Biermann said.
Napa County scheduled two community meetings for Thursday. The English version took place at 4 p.m. at the Napa Valley Unified School District auditorium, with a Spanish version scheduled for later in the day.